Why did President Barack Obama announce Friday that he has decided to end the American troop presence in Iraq by the end of the year?
The United States had been negotiating with Iraqi leaders for months on a possible continuing military presence in Iraq. But the negotiations stalled over a key hitch: Iraqi leaders refused to comply with Washington's insistence that any American forces serving in Iraq be granted legal immunity in that country.
"The end of war in Iraq reflects a larger transition," Obama said Friday, noting that the number of American troops deployed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has decreased from 180,000 when he took office to less than half that by the end of this year. "The tide of war is receding."
On Jan. 1, the United States and Iraq will have a "normal relationship between sovereign nations, an equal partnership based on mutual interests and mutual respect," Obama said.
Over the summer, however, the United States was asking to keep 10,000 troops in Iraq next year. "This was well below the 20-30,000 troops that military experts believed optimum," Ken Pollack, a member of Bill Clinton's National Security Council who wrote an influential book advocating war with Iraq, wrote in an analysis distributed by the Brookings Institution. "Just a few weeks ago, the Administration then unilaterally decided to cut that number down to about 3,000. There was nothing that 3,000 troops were usefully going to do in Iraq. No mission they could adequately perform from among the long list of critical tasks they have been undertaking until the present. At most, they would be a symbolic force, that might give Tehran some pause before trying to push around the Iraqi government." Pollack continued:
However, even playing that role would have been hard for so small a force since they would have had tremendous difficulty defending themselves from the mostly-Shi'ah (these days), Iranian-backed terrorists who continue to attack American troops and bases wherever they can.
At that point, it had become almost unimaginable that any Iraqi political leader would champion the cause of a residual American military presence in the face of popular resentment and ferocious Iranian opposition. What Iraqi would publicly demand that Iraq accommodate the highly unpopular American demands for immunity for U.S. troops when Washington was going to leave behind a force incapable of doing anything to preserve Iraq's fragile and increasingly strained peace? Why take the heat for a fig leaf?
Of course, the truth was that the Iraqi government itself had already become deeply ambivalent, if not downright hostile to a residual American military presence. Although it was useful to the prime minister to have some American troops there as a signal to Iran that it shouldn't act too overbearing lest Baghdad ask Washington to beef up its presence, he and his cohorts probably believe that they can secure the same advantages from American arms sales and training missions. The flip side to that was that the American military presence had become increasingly burdensome to the government--challenging its interpretation of events, preventing it from acting as it saw fit, hindering their consolidation of power, insisting that Iraqi officials adhered to rule of law, and acting unilaterally against criminals and terrorists the government would have preferred to overlook. All of this had become deeply inconvenient for the government.
Though there have been reports for weeks that American-Iraqi negotiations were stuck on that and other disagreements, Pentagon officials had always discounted those reports as premature, saying negotiations were still continuing.
And it's worth noting that, in the details of the arrangement Obama announced Friday, the United States will maintain an Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq, which will consist of hundreds, if not thousands of American defense personnel.
There were other signs of wiggle room in Obama's announcement. "As I told Prime Minister Maliki, we will continue discussions on how we might help Iraq train and equip its forces, again, just as we offer training and assistance to countries around the world," Obama said Friday. "After all, there will be some difficult days ahead for Iraq and the United States will continue to have an interest in an Iraq that is stable, secure and self-reliant."
Still, Obama's announcement Friday does not represent only a linguistic sleight of hand, for either country. Almost nine years after the American invasion to topple Saddam Hussein--and in the year since popular uprisings began to topple a succession of the Middle East's long-entrenched dictators and autocrats from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, not primarily at the hands of the American military but by the power of those countries' own people--the United States and Iraq will finally be able to have a "fresh start" to their post-war relationship, as Obama put it Friday.
"The United States is fulfilling our agreement with an Iraqi government that wants to shape its own future," John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said in a statement Friday. "We are creating a new partnership that shifts from a clear military focus to a new relationship that is more expansive, hinging on increased diplomatic, economic and cultural relations."
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